We have a world thats very much in need of fresh thinking

Updated: Mar 30 2006, 06:17am hrs
A full professor of Harvard at the age of 28, chief economist for the World Bank, US treasury secretary, Harvard president before he was 50...Lawrence Summers has had an extraordinary life. Having recently quit after a long struggle to reform the way Harvard is structured, he talks about some of this in an interview with Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express, on NDTV 24X7s Walk The Talk programme. Excerpts:

Seven years ago, Time magazine put him on the cover as a member of the committee to save the world. Dr Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, one of the most powerful academic jobs in the world. And you gave up that job last month because you chose to speak your mind or to walk your talk.

Well Im looking forward to being able to speak freely and work on a wide range of economic issues after many years in government. Im looking forward to a chance to return to thinking hard about global economic issues and, of course, Indias going to be a large part of all of that.

Well, thats the funny part. I took so much time introducing you and I didnt introduce you as an economist here.

That was how I got my start and some of the happiest years of my life were as a professor at Harvard before I went into government. Im looking forward to working on economic issues again.

Professor at 28. I read somewhere one of your MIT professors said that you were born in full bloom.

I dont know. But, I guess, I always had a passion for economics.

But you also said that somehow you were introduced more generously as the Harvard president than as an economist.

There is always a tendency of people to make a little fun. People would introduce me when I was a professor of economics by asking me if I knew what it takes to succeed as an economist and then they would explain, an economist was somebody who was pretty good with figures but doesnt quite have the personality to be an accountant. So one moved on from that.

Or a successful economist was somebody who, at 28, became an investment banker and not a professor at Harvard.

I dont know about that. My own commitment is very much to working and to making the world a better place and obviously people in business do that in many ways. But I think in government and in universities, we are able to do a lot of things that touch many peoples lives and thats very important.

The other fascinating thing about you is how much you have done at such a young age. Im speaking from a country where cabinet ministers can be in their 80s. In fact, the older they are, the wiser they are supposed to be. You were the youngest this, the youngest that, the youngest professor, the youngest treasury secretary, the youngest Harvard president. And I think you will forever be the youngest former president at Harvard. Nobody did that at 52.

It could turn out that way. I think thats an increasing issue for all our countries and all our institutions. One thing I worked very hard at Harvard was increasing the chances for younger stars to become professors at the university, because I felt that in that way we get some of the most creative thinking. The average tenure faculty member is close to 60. Seems to me what universities need to do is to connect to the concerns of the young, be as creative as possible. One of the things we need to do at Harvard and universities in general need to do is to make sure they get a faculty that really is at the most creative possible stage and best able to connect with their students.

Have you ever found your youth becoming a liability Has that been held against you, either that hes not old enough or that he can afford to wait

I had almost everything held against me at one time, or rather in things that Ive done. But Ive tried always to take as forceful an approach as one can, because it seems to me that with all that can be done in the world and all that should be donewhether its what the treasury can do to help developing countries, or create a better fiscal health in the United States or what Harvard can do to attract the very best students by searching as widely as possible and removing barriers for financial need or what Harvard can do by stepping up its contribution to scientific research and thinking about the ways to collaborate or by engaging with the world as a whole it seems to me one always wants to push forward as aggressively as possible. Or maybe thats something that comes out of my relative youth in these positions. Its not an impatience to always want to do more.

In this country, they will tell you, you need more experience. Fifty-two is no age to do anything responsible.

I dont know about that. If one looks at many other great contributions that people have madesurely you dont need to include mine in thoseI think they often come from people who bring a relatively fresh perspective to a problem. People who dont know and see all the constraints that other people see. And I think we have a world thats very much in need of fresh thinking. Thats why, I think, bringing the kind of much closer connection between India and US that so many people are trying to do right now can be catalytic for both. Thats why at the university, Ive tried to work very hard to build and foster combinations across different disciplines, across different schools of the university. For example, on this trip Im going to have a chance to be opening an office that will focus both on research for our business schools and also a broader South Asian initiative, which can look at everything from cultural issues, religious issues, here in India, to questions of global health and maximising cooperation. It seems to me its really the way in which you move forward the most, to bring together as many people with strong views and as much energy as you possibly can. Thats all we tried to do at Harvard and at the Treasury, and thats what I look forward to in the field of economics.

We all remember what you did at the Treasury because you inherited such a deficit and you turned it to a surplus. May be you will be called upon to do that again by the next presidency. But the reason Im talking to you first as Harvard president is because to most of my viewers, Indian parents, what matters is a child at Harvard.

There are many great universities and certainly Harvard is one of them, and I think what Harvard has to do, what we are trying to do, is open ourselves up in as many ways as we possibly can. As Ive often said, the larger the lake you fish in, the bigger the fish you catch. Thats why we are reaching to the whole world more now than we ever had before. Thats why we tried to remove all the financial barriers. You know, now at Harvard College, any student whose family earns less than $40,000 a year doesnt have to pay anything to send a child to college. Thats not just an American policy but thats a global policy. Because of that commitment, I think we can maximise the contribution that we can make.

I read in one of your speeches, when you justified that policy of waiving fees for any family earning less than $40,000, that nobody in the world should feel that Harvard is not for them.

Thats right. We want to get sufficiently extraordinary students, no matter what their background is, no matter where they go up and thats why we work so hard in recruiting not just in the United States but all over the world. We also believe at Harvard that the world needs more international understanding than we ever had before. Certainly, I can tell you as somebody whos been involved in American affairs for some time, I dont think theres ever been a moment when there has been so much misunderstanding by the United States of the rest of the world. It seems to me that institutions like universities have an obligation to contribute to that. Part of that we do by encouraging more students to study abroad, by talking here about how more Harvard students can travel to India and also encouraging more students from abroad to come to the US. These kinds of exchanges have enormous benefits over the longer term.

I was reading somewhere that now suddenly you have more and more students enrolling for Arabic classes at Harvard. Now, how do you balance that in a world where there are visa restrictions on young Arab men and women coming to America to study Its such a paradox.

I think visa restrictions have intervened with students coming to American universities and have been a grave mistake. Its something that I spoke with and worked with former secretary of state (Colin) Powell on, and its a situation that I believe is much better.

We have tragic cases. For example, we had a student from China who had a piece of research, almost the first major paper to be presented. Then the students father died. The student went for the funeral and couldnt return for seven months due to visa restrictions and lost the chance to be a part of that scientific discovery. Those are great mistakes and I think we are making progress in the United States regarding these restrictions. Its crucial for the health of our universities that people feel free to come.

Im fascinated by what you said, and you have said these in your speeches before, that if you want to catch larger and better fish, you have to go to a bigger lake. I dont think I have heard a more brilliant defence of diversity.

If you believe in excellence, the more broadly you look, the more excellence you are going to find. That means, being prepared to look at members of every racial group, being prepared to look nationally and internationally, being interested in people who are extraordinary in every academic field and recognising talents that are still submerged, of people who havent had the most privileged educational background before they go off to college.

You know why I find people like you very fascinating, because you have spoken about the role that IITs play in driving Indian society forward and how that role can be enhanced. In some ways, we are reaching out to the bigger lake in India. Look at the IITs. I have this theory about India now being taken over by people like me, who are now described as HMTs, the Hindi Medium Types, people who did not go to privileged schools or English medium schools. If you look at the IITs or IIMs, they are now filled with people from small towns and rural India, who succeed in this brutal system of selection. Yet, we are doing nothing for our primary schools, which is what your friend and colleague, Amartya Sen, talks about. I know you started something at Harvard called the Harvard School of Education so that no child is left behind.

We have a saying that science is too important to leave to scientists and war is too important to leave to generals. Education is too important to leave only to educators. Thats why our education school at Harvard is partnering with our business school to discuss techniques of leadership and management within education. Thats why some of our finest economists at Harvard are working on questions in education and research. When I was at the World Bank, one of the things that I was involved in was a study looking at the issues of education. And everyones always known that was the moral imperative.

What we were able to demonstrate was that in purely economic terms, if you calculated the higher wages, if you calculate the benefits in terms of reduced health care costs from happier, healthier families, if you look at the better ownership of property that came when women were educated, if you look at the reduced transmission of disease, it might well be the highest in that investment available in many developing countries.

You dont want to be reminded of women in physics and maths!

But there are many women who made extraordinary contributions in all the sciences and as part of our commitment to having that broadest possible search for excellence. We always need to include women in every possible aspect.

One of the things that you have said in the past in your avatar as an economist, you said that no two countries have had a great deal of trade between them if base levels differ by a figure of 10. Now apply that to America. You said America has to build centres of excellence. It is so good, it has to drive its intellectual power forward so that people from around the world have no choice but to come there.

What I said is that, historically, standards of living didnt differ much.

Thats a brilliant answer to this whole paranoia of outsourcing.

You are right. There is a tremendous paranoia about outsourcing in the US. The right kinds of combinations between the US and India, or the US and other developing nations, can strengthen competitiveness of American firms, can strengthen the American economy, can make products available to America at lower prices. And, at the same time, can contribute to the growth of their economies. When I see close connections between American businesses and India, I see that as a positive thing.

Two interesting things you have mentioned about Harvard is that Harvard has to play a role in the world as a place for ideas and, second, that there is a great danger of complacency. We had Chris Patten here in Delhi for a week trying to sell the UKs education system because he thinks they are being left behind. The New Zealanders and Australians are here almost every week. Do you think Harvard and the US university system has to do more

I think complacency is the greatest danger facing Harvard and other US universities. Weve been strong for a long time and if we become self- satisfied, thats when you go down the hill. Thats why Harvard always needs to ask itself, is it providing the best possible education for students Are we doing everything we can to push back the frontiers of science Are we doing it in traditional ways or are we taking new kinds of combinations We need to be thinking about new combinations and new ways of reaching to excellence, new ways of organising the university. We need to take advantage of the power of information.

Is professoriat more brutal than politics

The academic world can often be an inward-looking world, particularly when you are in the college. My approach is to look beyond internal politics, trying to think of the difference we can make in the world.

One would have thought that in the times of Bush, given the fact that you have worked with Clinton, you would have got gentler treatment.

I dont know. These issues primarily have to do with the kinds of issues President Clinton and President Bush would disagree on. I think its a more complicated story.

It doesnt have to do with polarisation

Some elements of that might be there. But I think the issues are more towards Harvards direction, where the students feel the kind of changes in a curriculum would focus teaching on kinds of instruction that were important to students, broadgauged courses that students very much supported.

There was a sense in our professional schools that the interesting engagement of the university with the world on a whole set of public service concerns and the bringing together of different parts of the university was a very important thing. I think some of the parts of the university are still more traditional. There was resistance to some of the things I was trying to do. But I think those things will move forward. I came to the conclusion that probably they will move forward more rapidly with a change in the leadership and thats why I stepped down.

Old institutions, old companies, resist change. I found that in my life as well. They say, dont shake an old tree too hard.

Harvards an old tree. But its a tree that is growing in quality very rapidly in these years and growing in its impact. I feel very good as I leave a foundation that has been laid, whether its an under-graduate course or in emerging or in connecting with the rest of the world. A great deal is underway. I also feel the university is a place that is on one hand more connected across its different parts and, on the other hand, with more restless energy questioning itself.

Larry, youve looked at India as an economist, as a policy-maker, now as an academic captain. You saw Indias position change. And you saw the beginning of better relations with US in Clintons second term. But, really, it took Bush and the Republicans to take it forward.

It took progress in India, it took another five years...Certainly, I felt things were very much on the right track when I visited India as treasury secretary just about the same time as President Clinton did in 2000, and Im encouraged by the way the ties have grown closer. I think one of the things we learnt, and its an important lesson to keep in mind in India as well, is that relations between nations are not just relations between heads of states or even relations between governments; they are relations much more broader. And thats why the kind of connections that Im here to forge on behalf of Harvard, I think, are very important parts of the United States in India.

If you go around in India, particularly New Delhi, you might get people telling you that George Bush may be very bad for the world, but hes very great for India. Does it bother you

Im not going to take a partisan, political kind of approach. One of the important things President Bush has done is to recognise Indias strength and power as so large and important a democracy and to work on a Bill for closer connections with India and thats something I, as an American, very much support. I think we need to get behind, get past the kind of partisanship approach. I think the President has forged a strong approach.

One of the key things about Bush and Bush people is that they do not suffer from the disease which you in Washington describe as analysis paralysis. They make up their minds on something and then go with it.

I think things have moved rapidly on a whole set of areas. At the same time, I think there are a number of aspects of our national life, whether its dealing with Budget issues or whether its dealing with some foreign policy issues not involving India, I wonder if a somewhat more sceptical approach that we took in the Clinton administration...well we did spend time on thinking on alternatives, but that might not have produced better outcome.

You are sounding so diplomatic now, I suspect your next stop could be policy again. Do we see you again in the new Clinton administration, running the treasury, because by that time the deficit would have run so much that it would need Larry Summers to fix it

For the next few years, Im going to be working and thinking about a whole set of questions that Ive noticed but havent had a chance to attempt to think deeply about as Ive been involved in leadership and administrative positions.